Longtime Market Urbanism readers will know that we’re not huge fans of Joel Kotkin. But his most recent article on megacities (spoiler: the “triumphalism” surrounding them “frankly disturbs me”) sets a new low for sheer factual inaccuracy. I’m speaking specifically of his policy prescription, which appears to be based on the most innovative planning theories of 1911:
One does not have to be a Ghandian idealist to suggest that Ebenezer Howard’s “garden city” concept — conceived as a response to miserable conditions in early 20th Century urban Britain — may be better guide to future urban growth.
Rejecting gigantism for its own sake, “the garden city” promotes, where possible, suburban growth, particularly in land-rich countries. It also can provide a guide to more human-scale approach to dense urban development. The “garden city” is already a major focus in Singapore, where I serve as a guest lecturer at the Civil Service College. Singaporean planners are embracing bold ideas for decentralizing work, reducing commutes and restoring nearby natural areas.
First of all, Singapore is flat-out not following a garden city model. The garden city is a very specific thing: It’s a turn-of-the-century suburban planning style with small, self-contained towns of relatively low-density buildings segregated with single-use zoning and surrounded by open fields. Singapore, on the other hand, is a typical high-density wealthy East Asian city-state with a strong downtown and a well-used metro system. Kotkin may have gotten the idea from what appears to be a Singaporean parks-building program called “Garden City” (here and here), but it’s of an entirely different magnitude than the traditional garden city, which is dominated open space. Given that Kotkin is a guest lecturer at a university in Singapore, he must visit from time to time, so I’m not quite sure how he could have missed that fact.
But secondly, there in fact is an Asian city that has adopted a real garden city model, and it’s right next door to Singapore: Kuala Lumpur. And unlike Singapore, a developed country, Kuala Lumpur has a middle-income economy similar to the megacities like Mexico City and Manila that Kotkin starts out talking about. Here’s what I wrote about the Malaysian capital last September:
The city was practically brand new when it was made capital of the Federal Malay States in 1895, and as a British protectorate, the Crown sent New Zealand planner Charles Reade to the Malaysian capital in 1921 to head its planning department. Schooled in the methods of the nascent Garden City movement in the UK, Reade made a name for himself by spreading the sprawling, proto-suburban style throughout Australia and New Zealand before his posting in British Malaya. Under Reade’s aegis, Kuala Lumpur became a test case for the movement’s applicability outside of the industrialized West.
In other words, Kuala Lumpur took exactly the path that Kotkin is advising for the third-world megacities. And the planners largely achieved what they set out to do: The city is very auto-oriented, and does not have significant rail infrastructure (which Kotkin associates with the slums of our grandparents). But unfortunately for Joel, Kuala Lumpur is roundly criticized as a planning disaster. Though it has the right population size according to Kotkin (he cites Chennai and Hyderabad, which are similar in size to KL, as preferential to Mumbai), its polycentric layout and extremely congested roads make getting around very difficult and time-consuming. In other words, it has the same problems that Kotkin hates so much about cities many times its size. And to make matters worse, not every Malaysian is wealthy enough to own a car yet, so it’s only going to get worse.
If Kotkin truly believes in the suburban, car-oriented model for third-world cities, then he should defend Kuala Lumpur, not Singapore. And if he really thinks Singapore is so great, then he probably shouldn’t be cheering on garden cities. Then again, given his apparent ignorance about what a “garden city” even is, I’m not sure that he’s really qualified to be writing about it at all.
Edit: I forgot possibly the weirdest part of the whole article, where he uses traffic fatalaties to argue for…er, more car-oriented cities?
More serious still, the slum-dwellers face a host of health challenges that recall the degradations of Dickensian London. Residents of mega-cities face enormous risks from such socially caused maladies as AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, urban violence, unsafely built environments, and what has been described as ”the neglected epidemic” of road-related injuries. According to researchers Tim and Alana Campbell, developing countries now account for 85% of the world’s traffic fatalities.